Why Joe Biden’s Virtual Speech Was So Weird

What people want is authenticity, not slick camera work—something Biden's team doesn't seem to understand.
March 23, 2020, 10:35pm
Joe Biden.
Screenshot via Twitter

Joe Biden is not good at technology. The 77-year-old Democratic presidential candidate has been confused by a cell phone ringing, by texting, by Twitter, and by internet law. His virtual town hall was a mess.

While Bernie Sanders was doing near-daily livestreams about the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has been largely absent, leading many to wonder when we were going to hear from him again. For days, sources close to Biden said he was essentially spending several days getting his webcam set up. Specifically, they have noted that the Biden team was "working on scaling up that infrastructure and dealing with the realities of Biden’s Wilmington Home, like the fact that there aren’t particularly high ceilings, which can make lighting a challenge."

Meanwhile, we got Stephen Colbert recording a show with his AirPods, Bernie’s daily streams, a bunch of celebrities singing “Imagine” to their phones, and every friend you have ever met having Zoom parties.

On Monday morning, we finally heard from Biden. He posted a bizarre pre-recorded video of him addressing the country from his Wilmington, Delaware home for a minute and 20 seconds. What he's saying in the video (about the GOP proposal to give the Trump administration $500 billion to bail out corporations) is less important than how it looks. It looks so needlessly slick and over-produced, it's making some people online think it's fake.

I'm not a forensic analyst, but I have written extensively about deepfakes, video editing, and the uncanny valley, so I'm here to give my opinion on this matter anyway.

Part of why this video seems to walk the uncanny valley is what he's wearing: as some sharp eyes on Twitter have pointed out, it's the same exact outfit from the disastrous town hall. Then again, I've been wearing the same leggings and college hoodie for three days, so I can't really say this is proof positive that it was recorded on the same day, a week and a half ago.

Another theory is that he's standing in front of a green screen, made to look like an austere book-laden study in the background. I'm going to venture a guess that Biden's home is probably that swanky in real life—or at least clean and nice enough to find a backdrop for a minute-long standup video recording—so I'm not sure why the campaign would go to the effort to stage a green screen but not have him change his shirt.

It's plausible that they gave up on trying to light around his woefully average-height ceilings and slapped a Zoom background on there. There might be some artifacting around the edges of his jacket, maybe? Again, I'm not a forensic analyst.

It can be quite hard to tell a greenscreen from the real thing, so without Biden's team directly telling us, we may never know. (I emailed the campaign to ask, and will update if I hear back.)

Some people have posited that this video is a deepfake. This is definitely not a deepfake. Stop it.

Others have posited that this is proof Biden has fallen ill, or is dead, or something equally bad. I don't think we're fully _Weekend at Bernies_-level of disinformation yet, but I will admit that airing a video of him in the same outfit he was in weeks ago isn't doing anything to disprove that one.

The truth is probably a lot more boring than any of these theories: Biden's campaign cares a lot about respectability theater and spent a lot of time and money on getting studio-quality lighting, makeup, and cameras dispatched to Delaware during a pandemic. But it’s 2020, and everyone is quarantined, and this is an horrifying public health crisis. Urgency and authenticity is incredibly important right now, and Biden would have done better to spend 10 minutes setting up a YouTube or Periscope stream on his MacBook than flailing to read a short prepared statement in his perfectly arranged library or study.

Vine, TikTok, Snapchat and even the camming industry have proven that what people want is authenticity, not fancy camera work or high ceilings. Biden could have just as easily used the webcam on his iPhone or laptop (or borrowed either from a staffer). Instead we're all out here (in here) watching the best the Democrats have to offer, caked-up in front of some box lights, robotically reading from a teleprompter speech.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.